Gail Omvedt, 80, American born Indian historian and social activist remembered

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Gail Omvedt who died at the age of 80, in Kasegaon, Maharashtra. Photo Twitter @gailomvedt

Scholars in United States, India and around the world, are mourning the death Aug. 25, 2021, of one of the foremost experts on India’s caste system as well as an activist Gail Omvedt.

Born in Minneapolis, Omvedt became an Indian citizen in 1983. She was married to scholar and activist Bharat Patankar. The family lived in Kasegaon, Maharashtra where she died and was cremated.

A prolific writer and author of several books, Omvedt is being fondly remembered by those who knew her personally and those who read her work, or worked with her in the Dalit movement.

She earned her PhD from University of California, Berkeley in 1973 and her dissertation was entitled Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India, 1873-1930.

“The Shudra/OBC/Dalit/Adivasi movements all over India will be indebted to her life time work and inspiration,” said Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, writing in countercurrents.org, and the author of Why I am Not a Hindu, Post-Hindu India and co-editor of The Shudras–Vision for a New Path.

The Dalit Collective described her as one of the most original thinkers in the country, Hindustan Times reported. Political leaders and intellectuals all praised Omvedt’s contributions to Indian studies of marginalized communities. Leaders from the left and the right commented on the loss.

“As a researcher and a scholar, Dr Omvedt contributed significantly to the social movements, folk traditions, literature in India as well as for the rights of women and the underprivileged. Her contribution will always be remembered as a scholar who had devoted herself for the society,” Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray is quoted saying in the Hindustan Times.

“Gail Omvedt represents a generation of scholarship & activism that combined diverse ideologies to fight out caste-based oppression. She was a trusted friend of Bahujans,” tweeted scholar and activist Suraj Yengde.

Left leaders like Sitaram Yechuri of CPI-M, also expressed their condolences.

Deepest condolences. Gail Omvedt was a distinguished scholar activist with an uncompromising commitment. She provided deep insights in understanding our social conditions,” said Yechuri on Twitter.

Social historian and activist, V Geetha, writing in the Indian Express praised Omvedt for crossing international borders in her ability to write for Indians as well as international readers, “moving with consummate ease between scholarly and popular journals, translating India for the world of left-leaning intellectuals of the US in the 1970s and 1980s,” describing India’s discontents “within a universal politics of justice and liberation.”

“We will miss this wise and wonderful woman, and the ways in which she made her insightful reading of ideas, events and histories available to a wide public, combining rigour and engagement, argument and social affection,” says V Geetha, summarizing the feelings of a broad body of scholars and activists.

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